In the West Coast's most laid-back city, things are getting kind of serious.
San Diego has always liked checking itself out in the mirror—you don't call yourself America's Finest City, not with a straight face, anyway, if you're not at least the teensiest bit narcissistic. Then again, who really wants to pick a fight, stepping off a plane here on a sunny afternoon in January—it's warm, or at least warmer than where you came from, most likely. People are outside, doing things, fun things—you'll wish you'd remembered to bringyour sunglasses. This really is the greatest city ever, you think to yourself, automatically shutting down the part of your brain that asks questions.
Questions like, for instance, is a city whose primary culinary contribution to the world appears to have been, depending who you ask, either a) casually lifting fish tacos from Baja and making them your own, b) opening 400 breweries to sell 800 variations on the same IPA or, c) trying to make the rest of the world care about its various questionable forms of drunk food. (See: Carne asada fries. Or don't.)
It's not that San Diego doesn't have a food scene—far from it. But it's never really been, with the odd and occasional rare exception, the sort of thing you travel for. Entertaining to the folks here at home, absolutely. Essential viewing? Not really—not until you get down toward the border, anyway, or across it: Baja California's cutting-edge food and wine situation is now easily worth a journey from just about anywhere.
Are things changing, though? Yes, slowly, because everything else is—with space in Southern California getting tighter by the year, it was inevitable that San Diego's duties, which for years consisted largely of housing lots of transient military families, affluent retirees and those that got up every day and served them, would change. With the cost of living skyrocketing up and down the West Coast, and a good commuter link to Los Angeles and Orange County in the form of an Amtrak train that runs largely along the beach, San Diego is, more and more, being pressed into service as a serious city, if only because things are tighter elsewhere. Rents are climbing, wages aren't catching up—San Diego never felt like it was one of those places that had all that much hustle in it. It sure does now.
The evolution of the food scene has not been straightforward, or easy—there have been too many stops and starts; some of the most exciting restaurants to open here in recent memory are now gone. But with all that's going on, as new blood rushes in, as tastes continue to diversify, it's starting to feel as we're getting awfully close to the time when San Diego food will, instead of becoming a diversion in between long stretches of admiring its beauty, become something worth knowing a whole lot more about. Feel like getting in on the ground floor? Here's where to go—a snapshot, if you will, of the city's current scene at its finest.
The Restaurant You don't typically trek up to San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood in search of serious dining, but that's the whole thing about Trust, a neighborhood joint co-owned by Chef Brad Wise. Relaxed in spirit, but entirely serious about the food, Trust feels a million miles removed from the usual San Diego dining experience, from focused service to Wise's thoughtful New American menu, split into four sections—Farm, Ocean, Ranch, and More. Tip: If it's wood-grilled, get it, particularly the lamb meatballs. 3752 Park Blvd, (619) 795-6901
The Bar Beer? So last year. These days, distilleries are the thing. You & Yours Distilling Co. opened earlier this year; co-owner and head distiller Laura Johnson heads up the operation, she's currently producing a well-received gin and vodka. Tours are available, but you can also just drop in for a drink—the bar is beautifully designed and well-lit, there are couches to sit on, if you like, and the cocktail menu is very good. Start with a classic—a Bee's Knees, say, or a Gimlet. 1495 G St, (619) 955-8755
The Market If you're only around long enough to make one stop and want to take the temperature of the local scene, go directly to the city's Liberty Public Market. Tucked into the historic Naval Training Center, an architecturally-appealing city unto itself, just out past the airport, the market has become not only a place to come eat or shop, it's also one of the best places in town to people watch. If nothing else, stop by for a drink on the patio—local beer legend Bottlecraft has a great bar in the market. In good weather, which is mostly always, it's quite the happening. 2820 Historic Decatur Road, (619) 487-9346
The Neighborhood A historic center of Mexican-American culture, San Diego's Barrio Logan was almost lost to history when the city built the bridge to Coronado, years ago—for a long time, the neighborhood was known best for Chicano Park, the collection of murals (now a National Historic Landmark) brightening up the underside of the bridge's tangle of access roads. These days, however, Barrio Logan is evolving to become one of the most authentically cool zones in town, and everyone seems to want a piece. Stop by ¡Salud! for tacos, Border X Brewing for beers, Café Virtuoso or Por Vida for coffee and good vibes, or pay tribute to Las Cuatro Milpas, the original culinary lure into the neighborhood for most outsiders, around since 1933 and serving classic comfort eats.